Issue: October 2006 - March 2001 - August 2000 - January 2000
With the sponsorship of the U.S. Army, John Mattola, 43, and Jo Nunez, 35, run the Skull Mountain Racing team.
The duo pulled off a pair of upsets at the Chattanooga (Tenn.) Offshore race earlier this month.
Powerboat racer's dream is reality
By Thad Mumau
Getting back on track
John Mattola lives his life with gusto. After spending 13 years in the Army, he has built a security consulting business and is pursuing a master’s degree in religion and divinity. He also has a thrilling pastime.
Mattola, 43, lives in Pinehurst, with his work taking him all over the country and sometimes overseas. One of his goals is to establish a youth ministry with his wife. Another is to be a champion powerboat racer.
“I jumped out of airplanes,” he said, “and powerboat racing is more dangerous. You are literally flying across the water at times … it takes your breath.”
Growing up in Miami, Mattola watched his father race powerboats. But he was separated from the sport and his dad by divorce.
“I was fascinated by powerboats,” Mattola said, “and dreamed of racing them. But I thought nothing would come of those dreams.”
Then they came true. After retiring from the military, Mattola’s business started to grow and he was able to save some money. He researched the sport and learned that finding the right boat builder and assembling a team are the keys to being a success in powerboat racing.
He returned to Miami, where he connected with Jo Nunez, whose dad, Pepe, had raced and built powerboats for 32 years. A boat was put together and so was the Skull Mountain Racing team, with Mattola the driver and Nunez the throttle man.
Their first race, in May, was a success and a near disaster.
“We were in Fort Lauderdale and we got hit by a larger boat in the last turn of the last lap,” Mattola said. “Our boat is in the smallest class (3,800 pounds) and the other one was about 10,000 pounds and doing 75 miles an hour.
“We could easily have been killed, but we weren’t injured. We kept going and finished in third place. But $15,000 damage was done to our boat, and after running it only one hour, we needed four months to repair it.”
Mattola and Nunez missed six races before returning to competition Oct. 13-15 in the Chattanooga (Tenn.) Offshore race, where they pulled off a pair of upsets. The Skull Mountain team defeated the defending champion twice, but the first win was wiped out because of a technicality.
“We exceeded the maximum speed,” Mattola explained. “You can only go so fast in some races. In others, there are no restrictions.
“Usually, we run from 72 to 75 miles per hour. The water is always changing, and the seas can go from 6 feet to 2 feet in a split second. Out of nowhere, there will literally be a huge hole in the water. The boat could go 20 feet underwater.
“The most dangerous part of the race,” Mattola said, “is the turn. You are defying gravity, and there are a lot of cross wakes from other boats. They cause the water to churn like a washing machine. As you fight gravity, the boat can go up on its side and become hard to control. That’s where the throttle man earns his money.”
As the throttle man, Nunez controls the speed and acceleration of the boat, making sure it performs and accelerates to its optimal efficiency. Experience is crucial.
“My dad was a world champion powerboat racer and has been running boats 32 years,” said Nunez, 35. “I have learned a lot from him. John doesn’t have a great deal of experience, but he is willing to listen, learn and work hard.
“John has his heart in it. Our personalities have melded together; we have jelled real well. I feel we have a great future.”
Skull Mountain Racing will compete in the World Championships in Key West, Fla., Nov. 5-12. The winner will take home $5,000.
“We have won a little money,” Mattola said, “but not enough to fund our team. This is an expensive sport. You have to have sponsors. Our primary one is the U.S. Army.
“I think we help in their recruiting with what we do and what we represent. One thing we do is try to get people involved in our team. We take Make-A-Wish kids on our boat and even let them and other fans drive it.”
Mattola sees big things for the Skull Mountain team.
“We made a pretty strong statement in Chattanooga — that we are a contender for the world title. We want to expose people to powerboat racing and also share our faith in God. That is very important in our lives.
“Our team is about character. We believe good guys can finish first.”
Thad Mumau can be reached at email@example.com.